It is on that latter scenario that I would like to focus, though. We know where later is on the sooner--later spectrum: the convention. But we are in the process of determining where sooner is. The 2012 Republican presidential nomination race is at a point where Mitt Romney is in control and his nomination is a when not if proposition. But that is not necessarily readily apparent.
...at least not where it counts: with the main opposition campaign (Santorum).
If the Romney nomination is a when not if proposition, then the race is in a position of negotiating Santorum's withdrawal. Now, FHQ doesn't mean that as either the RNC and/or Romney campaign incentivizing in some way Santorum's exit.1 Against the backdrop of a likely steady stream of endorsements for, not to mention primary victories by, Romney throughout April will be a decision-making calculus within Santorum campaign as to the utility of continuing in the race.
...of the campaign coming to the realization that either Santorum cannot become the nominee (at the convention2) or he cannot keep Romney from reaching the 1144 delegates necessary to wrap up the nomination. Another angle to consider is that the Santorum camp comes to the realization that continuing on is in no way helpful to their/the party's cause. For the Santorum campaign, they have to concern themselves with the optics of persisting in a cause that will be hard to keep together during April (see above). The longer they keep at it, the worse the outlook is for getting a VP or cabinet nod from a presumptive Romney-as-nominee. And no, that may not be the goal here. Alternatively, it also hurts Santorum's efforts with the very people that would help him in any future run at the nomination: the establishment of the party. If the perception is -- among that group -- that Santorum has, is or does hurt(ing) Romney in terms of the former Massachusetts governor's chances against Obama in the fall. If that is the conventional wisdom, then the party establishment is much less likely to rally around Santorum in the future. That is an iffy proposition anyway. That assumes that there is not a "better" candidate out there four or eight years from now that occupies a similar ideological space among the field of candidates. [After all, the 2012 field is viewed as relatively weak.] If that is the conclusion that is reached within the Santorum campaign -- that there are no incentives forthcoming from the Romney camp and/or the future outlook is bleak -- then they have nothing to lose by continuing in the race.
...at least until the money dries up and the sort of retrenchment witnessed in the Gingrich campaign this week hits the Santorum camp.
That is the self-interested side of this. But there are also party-centered, altruistic notions at play here. We can call those "taking one for the team" notions; that stepping aside is for the good of the party's fortunes in the general election campaign. Even this comes back to the self-interested angle above. If the feeling is that they/the campaign has nothing to lose by continuing on, then this is likely to play out in a rather slow, but obvious manner. In that scenario, if we follow history in the post-reform era as a guide, the Santorum campaign will likely die a slow death during primary season. But that has yet to play out.
...so, we know where later is, but we're still trying to determine where, or more appropriately when, sooner is.
1 This is a dynamic process, but the RNC and Romney campaigns, independent of each other, seem to be taking more of a hands-off instead of hands-on approach to this. If an argument can be made for either one intervening, it would be for the RNC (...as measured by the steady stream of endorsements coming in for Romney). And even that argument is tenuous at best. It is more a matter of a collective will -- independent of national party coordination -- that folks like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or George HW Bush are coming out in favor of Mitt Romney or endorsing the idea that the process should come to a close.
2 I think that, barring a significant shake up to the current dynamics of this race as they currently exist, we can all agree that Santorum cannot get to 1144 or surpass Romney in the delegate count during primary season. It is his campaigns only play to keep Romney under 1144 heading into the convention and rolling the dice there.
South Carolina House Moves to Safeguard Future Presidential Primary Calendar Position
Santorum Super PAC Doubles Down on Ludicrous Delegate Count Claim
There's a reason the Santorum campaign didn't mention West Virginia in its delegate conference call last week
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